It goes without saying that one should have a grain of salt nearby anytime a television is turned on. TV programming is usually explicitly fictional, as a sitcom or crime procedural, but there have always been those out there trying to pull a fast one over on viewers, and the onslaught of “reality TV” and made-for-TV docu-series has only made things worse. Sometimes the attempts to fool viewers are mischievous, while other times they’re obvious jokes that audiences took way out of proportion.
Reelz’s look at Whitney Houston’s death allegedly used a fake drug dealer as a part of its “true” narrative, which makes one wonder how often this kind of thing happens. But before we all don our Inspector hats to take on the case, here are ten of the most memorable instances where TV wasn’t being as truthful as we thought it was at the time. This first one gets pretty NSFW by the end, so mind your speaker volume.
Andy Kaufman vs. Jerry LawlerOne could argue that everything comedian Andy Kaufman did in his life (and even death) was an act for an audience of one, but there’s no arguing his radical genius and looming influence in today’s comedy. His performance art-filled career at one point gave way to wrestling against women and a subsequent “feud” with professional wrestler Jerry “The King” Lawler. It culminated in Kaufman’s injured neck and the infamous Late Night with David Letterman appearance seen above, in which Lawler slaps Kaufman across the face, which is followed by the Taxi star hollering out a line of explicit insults. It was 1982 and it was over a decade before the masses found out the two men were good buddies and it was all a bafflingly uncomfortable act. This is why stories that he faked his death will always be slightly believable.
Discovery’s Megalodon SpecialsDiscovery’s Shark Week used to be a thing of genuine majesty for TV audiences since its inception in the late 1980s, at one point bringing in Jaws author Peter Benchley to host. Recent years have seen comedians and a YouTube personality taking on the hosting gig, which is probably as good a marker as any that the network would soon complement its legit shark documentary episodes with complete anecdotal bullshit, complete with actors instead of actual experts doing the talking. The two biggest targets for viewers’ ire were Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives and Darkness: Wrath of Submarine. While a ratings bonanza for the network, these efforts were no more scientifically informative than Ancient Aliens or that Bigfoot dream you have every night.
Forgotten SilverBack in 1995, before Peter Jackson became known as the guy who makes J.R.R. Tolkien movies for a living, he was known for awesome splatter comedies and the haunting Heavenly Creatures. This doesn’t make him a prime candidate for master hoaxing, so when his mockumentary Forgotten Silver hit New Zealand TV, people had no idea the increasingly surreal farce they were watching was complete fiction. In the doc, Jackson claims to have found the lost films of filmmaker Colin McKenzie, all of which prove that McKenzie was the most innovative director of all time and responsible for a multitude of advancements in movies and beyond. Little did anyone watching realize that the entire thing was cooked up by Jackson and writer/director Costa Botes. Blair Witch shouldn’t have hit us that hard after Forgotten Silver.
The Swiss Spaghetti HarvestEveryone has a sense of humor, but some of us forget to make sure that’s what we’re supposed to be using when taking in information on April Fool’s Day. In 1957, the BBC current affairs series Panorama ran an April Fool’s joke about how the weather was promoting a lift in spaghetti tree harvesting in an area of southern Switzerland. Because this was at a point when pasta hadn’t quite taken over the U.K., many of the segment’s 8 million viewers were legitimately intrigued about trying to grow their own spaghetti trees and flooded the BBC with phone calls the next day.
Mermaids: The Body FoundAnimal Planet, known for its cute puppies and wild tree creatures (scientific term), aired a faux documentary called Mermaids: The Body Found back in 2012, while only barely tossing audiences a wink to let them know that it was a complete fiction, instead of just a horribly acted reality. In the same way that a lot of conspiracy theories and indie sci-fi starts, Mermaids was about the government covering up of the existence of mermaids, which were believed to have been evolved from the also-bullshit aquatic ape theory. It even had a website with a faked front page that claimed the government had shut it down. As you can imagine, the show received far more negative criticism than compliments, because CGI creepshow mermaids suck.
GhostwatchFor Halloween in 1992, BBC1 freaked the shit out of everyone with the mockumentary Ghostwatch. Though there were clear signs that Ghostwatch wasn’t real, it was presented as a live investigation into a house “haunted” by a ghost called Pipes. Horror fans and Ghost Hunters viewers will be familiar with a lot of the tactics the team used in finding and drawing out the malevolent spirit, but 1992 audiences were blown away. (It is genuinely unnerving at times.) The BBC and other media outlets were bombarded with calls from frightened people. The actual documentary Ghostwatch: Behind the Curtains chronicles the initial show’s impact over the years.
The Big Donor ShowEndemol is the company best known for Big Brother, but it received quite a bit of heat in 2007 for their well-intentioned but somewhat ghastly series The Big Donor Show (De Grote Donorshow). The single episode, which revealed its intentions by the end, involved a terminally ill woman who would donate her kidney to one of 25 contestants that needed a kidney transplant, which were narrowed down through the use of text messages sent to the show. It was revealed in the end that the main woman was just an actress, though the final three contestants were actual kidney patients, and that the entire “series” had been a ruse in order to draw awareness to how important organ donation is. With all text charges going to charity, and an overwhelming amount of new donors following the broadcast, this was one hoax where the criticism was dwarfed by the benefits.
Alternative 3Paying homage to Orson Welles’ famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast, which had people thinking aliens were afoot, Alternative 3 was an April Fools faux documentary about the discovery of a secret plan to make the moon and Mars habitable for humanity in the aftermath of environmentally devastating climate changes. The story also chronicled strange disappearances of a number of people in the science field. Sounds like a real laugh, right? The problem was, the Anglia TV episode wasn’t able to run on its intended April 1 air date, and instead ran on June 20, 1977. Talk about burying the punchline. The public, as you can imagine, was slightly interested in finding out more.
Quiz Show ScandalsThe golden age of television viewers were knocked for a loop when it was revealed that a handful of 1950’s game shows were guilty of handpicking and coaching contestants for the sake of drawing ratings and popularity. The most famous of these cases was that of Charles Van Doren, whom producers of the series Twenty One guided to a string of victories; even the guy Van Doren defeated was talked into throwing the game. The incident was famously brought to the big screen in the 1994 film Quiz Show. That kind of thing put streaks in the headlights of skeptics, particularly when Ken Jennings treated a slew of Jeopardy contestants like planks on a bridge to riches.
Space CadetsBack in 2005, when the thought of space tourism was something that was still looked at with sheer optimism, the U.K.’s Channel 5 ran a show called Space Cadets, in which twelve people competed to become the first British space tourists for a five-day long trip in low orbit. The ploy? Nearly everything about the show was fake, from the faux-Russian location to the shuttle pilots to some of the contestants themselves. None of the rubes even realized all of their actions were being documented for a TV show. Or did they? There are some that believe the entirety of Space Cadets was faked, and that it was truly the biggest hoax in TV history. Bottom line: a bunch of money was spent and nobody went to space.